Jon Snow’s life is impacted by two big ideas. One he doesn’t recognize as a big idea at first, but it turns out better than he ever could have expected. The other he does recognize, but it turns out far worse.
Take the Black
At Castle Black, the new recruits train in combat under the severe gaze of Ser Alliser Thorne, the Master of Arms. Jon Snow is skilled. Samwell Tarly is not. Thorne dubs the overweight, not very strong young man from Horn Hill as Ser Piggy and the Lord of Ham. Thorne pits Sam against the muscular, skilled bruiser, Halder. Sam is promptly hammered to the ground. He doesn’t fight back. When others are set against him, Jon comes to his defense, then tells Sam he will do better tomorrow. Sam “looked mournfully back over one shoulder. ‘No I won’t,’ he said, blinking back tears. ‘I never do better.’” When Sam walks off, the other two recruits, Grenn and Pyp, stare at him, shocked that Sam didn’t try to defend himself. Jon sees something different.
Face the Hard Truths
On the road to Castle Black, Tyrion Lannister tells Jon that taking the black isn’t the noble journey Jon believes it to be. Jon is signing away his freedom to a false brand, choosing to die with criminals and losers. When Jon admits he understands and can accept the reality of his new situation, Tyrion smiles. “That’s good, bastard. Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.” Jon recognizes in Sam a similar capacity to see the truth and have the courage to accept it.
Jon’s first big idea is to support Sam. This appears generous, maybe even suggesting softness on Jon’s part, but Sam brings resources to the challenges Jon faces, offering both leadership to Jon and skills to Jon’s team. He contributes to Jon’s promotion to Lord Commander. He contributes in a significant way to battling the threat of the Night King. When Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly serve as new recruits to the Night’s Watch, they believe the challenge that confronts Castle
Black is to keep the wildlings on the colder side of the Wall. After Lord Commander Jeor Mormont takes over a third of his men on the misguided Great Ranging Beyond the Wall, this reality changes. Sam and Jon go on different paths and discover a threat worse than vicious nomadic tribes. They learn about the murderous army of nonhuman Others and undead zombie wights. The Others, or White Walkers, long described as fantastical and nonexistent, are real. Their leader is the Night King. He has the ability to raise his dead enemies back as undead warriors to support his strategic goals. Jon and Sam realize the Night King plans to lead his frozen warriors south past the Wall. The undead army wants to destroy humanity. As a result, after Jon is promoted to the top of the Night’s Watch org-chart, he has his other big idea: invite the wildlings to join the Night’s Watch and defend the Wall. This idea doesn’t result as Jon hoped, but it was the right call. Jon achieves these two moments of strategic insight—the first supporting the development of his team, the second transforming the resources of the Night’s Watch—by accessing what Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz called coup d’oeil. Jon needs these two ideas for the same reason all leaders need big ideas: he faces challenges in his available resources and can benefit from the opportunities created by the big ideas. In his early days as a recruit, the challenge to his resources—which he is unaware of—are the limits to his personal leadership. Sam helps him. When Jon is voted Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, he faces the expected competition of internecine conflict with the wildlings but soon recognizes he also faces a barely understood and potentially insurmountable competitor in the Night King and White Walkers. The question is, how can we recognize our own big ideas?